On Wednesday the Forth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Facebook “Likes” were protected as free speech under the First Amendment. This ruling creates new policy issues for social media managers and public relations practitioners.
The court reversed a ruling by a Federal District Judge, Raymond A. Jackson, who dismissed a lawsuit in 2012 on the grounds that a Facebook “like” was insufficient speech to be protected by the constitution.
In the ruling the Court stated “In sum, liking a political candidate’s campaign page communicates the user’s approval of the candidate and supports the campaign by associating the user with it. In this way, it is the Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard, which the Supreme Court has held is substantive speech”.
This decision follows a growing trend to protect the rights of employee’s engaging in social media. Several organizations including the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have issued several decisions regarding social media policy and have created helpful guidelines for employers. Generally speaking, social media policy cannot freeze an employee’s right to organize, bargain collectively, and improve their working conditions.
This ruling breaks new ground in determining what constitutions free speech in an online environment. In the past the Courts have declared that written Facebook posts were protected by the First Amendment, but this is the first ruling regarding simple “Like” button is a different and abbreviated form of expression.
Considering that public relations professionals are often involved in the creation of social media policy, it is important to stay informed about court rulings regarding social media when reviewing and developing your social media policy.
Undoubtedly more cases will be brought before the courts in the future and the definition of free speech in an online environment will change. PR practitioners need to work closely with legal advisers and take into consideration court decisions and the NLRB guidelines when developing social media policy.
The new ruling and decisions by the NLRB does not mean that you should avoid creating social media policies. Specific and well-crafted social media polices protect both the employee’s right to free speech and the employer.
Disclaimer: This information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice.